/Timeworn Chennai both ruthless and ageless

Timeworn Chennai both ruthless and ageless

IPL 2019

There's a sense of ruthlessness the way CSK play, the kind that defeats but doesn't harm, and a quiet kind of confidence that only comes with age.

There’s a sense of ruthlessness the way CSK play, the kind that defeats but doesn’t harm, and a quiet kind of confidence that only comes with age. © AFP

There’s a photograph of MS Dhoni smiling and looking towards Shreyas Iyer at the toss. He looks at leisure but isn’t his usual inert. He’s clean-shaven again, a good arrangement when you are 37, and has perhaps been captured grinning after winning his twelfth toss of the season. Standing beside him is Iyer, feeling “fortunate” he’d later admit, blushing, involuntarily flaunting his undercut hairstyle and perfectly manicured black beard.

The photograph is about contrasts; you see what you expect. But come the cricket, the second Qualifier between Chennai Super Kings and Delhi Capitals, it was difficult to tell apart the old from the young.

Chennai haven’t made eight out of ten finals without a reason. There’s a sense of ruthlessness about them, the kind that defeats but doesn’t harm, and a quiet kind of confidence that only comes with age. They are untouched by perfectionism: a bad day at cricket isn’t really a bad day, and a dropped catch isn’t the end of hope after all. They even seem to get it all together better on the most important of days.

“For Chennai it’s very simple – we don’t focus on what’s happened. We’re a team that really focuses on the big games. That brings the best out of us as players. There’s a lot of experience in our team,” Faf du Plessis, who played a match-winning innings of 50 off 39 balls, said after the game in Visakhapatnam.

Du Plessis, all of 34 years, looked the youngest on the field across both teams. Delhi were eight down in the 19th over when he flew into a dive at long-on and stopped a certain six from Amit Mishra. He could have injured himself twenty odd days before a World Cup but du Plessis still threw himself under the bus, signalling the hunger Chennai have for winning the most trivial of moments in a cricket match. “It’s nice to play for Chennai,” he said later.

Delhi couldn’t quite win the moments, big or small. They missed two run-outs off the same delivery in the first over, failing to nip a match-winning partnership of 81 in the bud. And then Prithvi Shaw, stationed at mid-wicket, would leave a catch he should have taken to Colin Munro, who was running in from long-on. Shane Watson was on 16 off 17 balls when reprieved. He’d finish on 50 off 32, getting on par with du Plessis’s score, trumping him on strike-rate and in the process leaving Delhi without a chance to come back.

DC paid the price because of their inexperience.

DC paid the price because of their inexperience. ©BCCI

Du Plessis and Watson’s partnership in the match started achingly slow, a pain point in their defeat to Mumbai Indians in the first Qualifier, but it was more ploy than incompetence on Friday, du Plessis would reveal.

“We aren’t trying” is what du Plessis assertively says when asked about the lack of boundaries in the first few overs. “The start for us is not about runs, especially the first two overs. Our role, especially me and Watto, is to get through those first few overs. Because if we don’t lose wickets in those first few overs, we play the powerplay better. If we lose two, then we lose quite a bit of wickets because obviously not a lot of batters are in the best form. We’re playing on a difficult wicket in Chennai. So for us, it’s just about setting up to give those hitters a real good base.”

The openers’ response to Chennai’s long-standing powerplay issue was as mature as quintessentially Chennai Super Kings. When your coach grumbles publicly about how the team has been playing well in overs from 6-20 only, how do you respond with a hurt ego? You go that bit harder in the powerplay, try to score that little bit quicker, right? Not if you are opening for Chennai. You fight to survive, and leave the rest for later. Dhoni-isms flourish in myriad ways.

The difference between Delhi and Chennai was in how they handled conditions that were similar to home but not exactly home. Delhi saw the wicket as somewhat flatter than it was – a very young way to look at things – and lost both their openers inside the powerplay. Chennai started timid, trading their egos for some more time at the crease, and racked up 42 for 0 in the first six.

“The nature of our whole batting line-up is that we haven’t been in our best form, because we haven’t been playing on a flat wicket all the time. So naturally you need a few more balls to hit the middle of the bat. Once you get through that, we generally score quicker. We saw that innings where Watson got 96 – once he gets through the powerplay, he plays really well. So that’s a real strength of ours just to get through that, and it just frees up all the players.”

The loss notwithstanding, it wasn’t all gloom for Delhi. Rishabh Pant, perhaps to Delhi what Virat Kohli was to Bangalore in 2010, discovered another new side to himself. He saw Chennai gnaw out youth from the other end, so he gave up some of his own. With Dhoni behind the stumps, Pant played like Dhoni. 38 off 25 balls, only two fours and a six, being the least outrageous he could be for the sake of his team. He couldn’t quite finish it for Delhi but it did look the start of a perfect handover: from the ageless to the age-less.

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